On his first night in Germany, Tomer Heymann, an Israeli, sleeps with a German. He met him -- Andreas Josef Merk, blond and Catholic -- at Berghain, a Berlin club. Heymann -- film director, Jewish and gay -- at first takes him for a Swede. He thinks Germans must look different, perhaps more sinister, jagged or cruder.
The next morning, the camera is already rolling, and the Israeli asks the German: Are you proud to be a German? Have you ever spoken with your grandparents about the Holocaust? No, says the German, but it's very possible that they were Nazis. A long silence follows. It's the only time they broach the topic.
Shortly thereafter, the German travels to Tel Aviv with two suitcases and a one-way ticket. The two men celebrate Passover and Christmas together. The German demonstrates how to flip pancakes in the air; the Israeli shows him how to stand still on Holocaust Remembrance Day, with your arms pressed tightly against your body while you observe two minutes of silence. These and many other scenes eventually become a film: a 56-minute record of the new, unencumbered way in which many Israelis and Germans are now relating to each other.
"I Shot My Love" is a declaration of love -- that of an Israeli, whose grandparents fled Berlin in 1936, to a German dancer from Bavaria. The remarkable part: just how normal this love seems to be.
A New Stance toward Germany
Something has changed about the way Israelis and Germans interact, far removed from the endless German debates in which old men wrestle with their ghosts and politicians struggle to perform the mandatory rituals: the obligatory visit to Yad Vashem here, the obligatory visit to Dachau there. For quite some time now, there's been a new Israeli-German reality beyond the routine of shock and dismay -- primarily in Israel.
Nearly 70 years after the Holocaust, the last survivors are passing away, and this is changing how younger Israelis view Germany. Relatively free of historical taboos, they are redefining what this country means to them. This new generation no longer finds it odd that a company like Birkenstock promotes its products in Israel with "Made in Germany," and a short trip to Berlin is the most normal thing in the world. For them, Germany is not just a country like any other -- it also happens to be one of their favorites.
It mainly has to do with a feeling, a new Israeli self-assurance vis-à-vis Germany, one characterized by curiosity and a yearning for discovery. Young Israelis no longer insist on constant remembrance but, rather, on the right to be allowed to forget sometimes.
The sheer scale of this transition is perhaps best expressed in figures: Two years ago, one-quarter of all Israelis were rooting for Germany to win the soccer World Cup. In a survey conducted in 2009, 80 percent of all respondents qualified Israeli-German relations as normal, and 55 percent said that anti-Semitism was no worse in Germany than elsewhere in Europe.
City that Never Sleeps
Some 100,000 Israelis now hold German passports, and 15,000 are thought to be living in Berlin. The number of direct flights between the countries increases every year, yet the aircraft are nearly always fully booked. In the large cities, it's almost impossible to find a young Israeli who hasn't been to Germany or doesn't want to go there. They are especially drawn to Berlin. The city from which the Final Solution was once managed now lures Israelis with its cheap rents and the promise of life in an exciting city that never sleeps.
But Berlin is more than just the latest New York. It's a stage on which they can role play and explore their senses of belonging and identity -- a kind of what-if game: What if I had been born in Germany? Who would I be? What would my life be like today?
It goes without saying that this new relationship is not without its problems. Not everything is rosy, of course, and not all is forgiven and forgotten. There are still 17-year-olds with German roots who shudder with shame when the Holocaust is covered in school. There are others who swear they'll never set foot in Germany. Remembering the Holocaust is the guiding principle of their lives, said 98 percent of Jewish Israelis in a recent survey. And when the Israel Chamber Orchestra played a piece by Richard Wagner last year at the festival in Bayreuth devoted to the German composer, it sparked an uproar back in Israel. But it can actually be seen as a sign of change -- and not so much a sign of persistence: A symbolic act of resistance from the older generation, which is ill at ease with the relaxed attitude of today's youth.
Mixing History and Love
At one point in the film, Heymann, the Israeli filmmaker, asks his mother on camera: Does it bother you that your son is involved with a German? No, she says, not at all. Later, she says: You're both so different; you should look for someone more similar to you. By that, she means a Jew. Heymann didn't follow his mother's advice. Six years on, he and Andreas are still together. And the mother? She's grown to appreciate it. Indeed, the young German has given her back a part of her own German family history that had been buried for a long time.
But the question remains whether a partner from Germany is appropriate for an Israeli. It's an issue debated in many Israeli families these days. Not surprisingly, now that more Israelis are traveling to Germany, they are also meeting more Germans -- and falling in love. Hebrew courses in Tel Aviv are packed with non-Jewish foreigners, including many Germans learning their partner's language. In fact, the courses are so full that extra classes for non-Jewish immigrants have been introduced. At the same time, many Israelis are learning German, and the language courses at the Goethe Institut are more popular than ever.
Diving into a Difficult Past
It's no coincidence that this is happening now, in the third generation, which is no longer mainly preoccupied with being an Israeli. Their grandparents either angrily boycotted Siemens and Volkswagen, or they preferred to continue reading Goethe in German. To become genuine Israelis, their parents had to rid themselves of everything that was German. The grandchildren feel much more secure with their Israeli identity, so it's easier for them to explore their roots and break the silence that still reigns in many families regarding their personal suffering in the collective horror of the Holocaust.
This also explains why there are now so many films in which Israelis document how they discovered the long-lost stories of their forefathers. In "Six Million and One," for example, four siblings, including documentary filmmaker David Fisher, travel to Austria to gain a better understanding of their father, who didn't tell them much more than this: He was in Auschwitz -- hunger, suffering, trains, fragments of horror -- nothing more.
But after his death, the children find their father's diaries, in which he describes how he had to toil in one of Hitler's underground aircraft-manufacturing plants. So they travel there and enter the tunnel to trace his path of suffering. He worked there for 10 months, they tell an astonished historian, who says it's extraordinary that he survived. The average worker only lived for a week.
The interest is so great that, for nearly three years now, Israeli volunteers have even been working in Germany -- at day care centers, museums and youth centers. They are not only interested in exploring the past, but also in adding a new experience, and a new place of residence, to the present. Many of them simply yearn to experience something different and, after completing their military service, have decided to travel to Berlin rather than Goa.
This is very different from the experiences of German volunteers in Israel. They still go in droves, roughly 1,000 every year, and they're sometimes disappointed when they find themselves alone with their thoughts of atonement. The Israelis are simply not interested in constantly talking about the Holocaust.
The German Craze
This new, more relaxed way of dealing with Germany is also changing Israel, and it can be felt in many places, such as at one of the popular "Berlin parties" in Tel Aviv. Sometimes all it takes is a private apartment temporarily transformed into a club, with a bonfire on the roof and, one floor down, a steaming-hot dance floor. Here, all the bartenders wear East German army-surplus caps, a DJ from Berlin spins the tracks and there is a signpost bearing such Berlin place names as Zoologischer Garten, Hamburger Bahnhof and X-Berg.
This enthusiasm has almost become a craze of sorts. What else could explain the fact that Hans Fallada's Berlin novel "Every Man Dies Alone" was at the top of the Israeli best-seller list for a number of weeks last year -- 64 years after it was first published? And what could explain that it's no longer unusual for a German tourist buying an ice cream in Tel Aviv to get involved in a lively discussion about the films of German director Fatih Akin?
There are hundreds of such encounters in this city, and it seems that every Israeli has his or her own story to tell about Germany. A schoolteacher proudly shows a homemade video of a concert in which her daughter passionately sings "Surabaya Johnny," a song by German composer and playwright Bertolt Brecht from the musical "Happy End." Or, while signing a rental agreement, a landlady mentions that her grandmother barely managed to escape being deported to a concentration camp. Should she give her a brief call? Without waiting for a response, she dials the number and hands the phone to the new German tenant. What do they talk about? Villages in the vicinity of Bremen.
Strange? Not at all. These things happen all the time, and not just in Tel Aviv but also in Moshav Dishon in northern Israel, along the Lebanese border, in Jerusalem and in Beersheba, on the edge of the Negev desert.
Re-embracing German Citizenship
An Israeli journalist recently applied for a German passport. It will be his third nationality. Yermi Brenner, 32, is already an Israeli and an American. Soon, he will also be a German, as promised by Article 116, Paragraph 2 of the Basic Law, Germany's constitution, which states that people whose citizenship was revoked under the Nazis have a right to a German passport, as do their descendents. In the past, he would have been called a traitor. Those who applied for a German passport did so shamefacedly. Now, they tell their friends and are regarded with envy.
Since the turn of the millennium, there has been a rapid increase in the number of Israelis holding a German passport. For some, it's an insurance policy against war and terror; for others, it's a matter of convenience because it often does away with visa requirements. Still others see it as a belated victory. For Brenner, it's a matter of having options. And one of these options is being able to live in Germany someday, just as he is now planning to first study in New York.
Is it difficult to acquire the nationality of the perpetrators? It's a question that probably only a German could ask. Brenner personally doesn't ask himself this question.
It was only difficult for his father, who had to apply for German citizenship before his son could receive a German passport. His father is a typical representative of the second generation, someone who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust and with his mother's silence. It wasn't until Yermi's grandmother died that the family found out more about her -- ironically, from a German researcher. She delved into the history of the grandmother, who was in Auschwitz and fled by jumping off a train and making her way to Berlin, where she was hidden by a German.
The German researcher has since become a family friend, and the grandson of the Auschwitz survivor has taken a German course in Bayreuth. He will soon become a German. And actually, he says, it all feels totally normal.
Many such things have become normal in Israel. For example, last week, an Israeli lawyer called SPIEGEL's editorial office in Tel Aviv and asked if the staff could put him in touch with Günter Grass. He said he wanted to help the German author mount a legal challenge to the entry ban that the Israeli government has imposed on him in response to a poem he recently published that is critical of Israel.
He's even willing to work pro bono, he said, for the sake of defending freedom of speech. Hopefully the lawyer will succeed, if for no other reason than to give Grass an opportunity to experience this new Israel.